a conversation with Kevin Young      
photograph of Kevin Young  

Bold Type: Can you say a few words about the legacy of the blues in American culture?

Well, the blues are the backbone of American music—they make jazz, gospel, rock-n-roll and everything after, even country music, possible. Sometimes that can be hard to grasp—hard for some to hear how it informs, say, a jazz solo, but without blues we'd not have that tone , both a blurring of sounds and an emotional tone, that the blues provide the best jazz solos.

Kevin Young: But the blues aren't just important musically, their attitude I think tells us so much about how black folks viewed the world and remade it, made it swing. As I always stress, the blues are Saturday night music, are goodtime music; as the saying goes, "the blues ain't nothin but a bad woman feelin good" as well as a "nothin but a good woman feelin' bad." What I find remarkable is the way that they make sorrow sing, and laugh knowingly about it all.

You see, I listen to the blues to feel better, not worse—it transforms us as listeners, takes our troubles away not by pretending they don't exist (like much other early pop music) but by naming them. "Good morning blues, blues how do you do?" Likewise I think it's transformed what you call American culture, making sure that it's as much African American as anything else.

In terms of poetry, I think the blues have held a powerful legacy that I can only hope to have contributed to with Jelly Roll—in it I was trying to get at not strictly the repeating form of the blues (though sometimes that too) but its tragicomic spirit. After writing the poems, I began working on the Blues Poems anthology and was surprised to find there's no book of just blues poems; jazz poetry gets a lot more attention. So that book, out this fall, ranges from Langston Hughes to the present and I hope contributes to the blues in some small way too. Though the blues don't need no help.

Bold Type: Some of the album cover images on the binding jacket of Jelly Roll {A Blues} are taken from your own collection. Can you say a few words about your collection and perhaps about the general market for blues-related artifacts?

Kevin Young: Don't know if there's a specific market—and if there is, I don't want there to be until after I get a collection going so I can still afford it!

Actually, I'm a collector of lots of things—packrat some may say—I think a lot of writers are, have to be, functioning as historian and autodidact and preserver. So I have, just along the way, collected things that strike me, half-knowing, many of which later made their way into my writing—from old books to new, from old photographs of black folks to sheet music and records. All these things tell us so much. I also like the search, going into old stores in random towns and being surprised at what's there. It's the search, not the owning that I like—it's like writing in that way.

Deciding on the sheet music for the cover—it's sheet music, not records, as many are from before records were popularé I realized I had along the way accumulated a bunch of sheet music myself, ranging from a few actual blues to some black-related (though not necessarily black written) sheet music. For the cover, I was lucky to find most of the images at Indiana University's terrific Lilly Rare Book Library.

Bold Type: You are also known for your work as an editor (Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers and the forthcoming Blues Poems). How has your work as an editor affected your life as a writer?

Kevin Young: Not many people know this, but the first thing I edited was in college—back one summer in Kansas where I'd gone to high school, I put together a book of poems by one of my first writing teacher's teacher's who had recently died. I think it was going through all his files, sixty years of writing, and trying to find all the poems I could and date them, that got me into the importance of editing. And of keeping things—I'm sure it only fed my packrat impulse. It was remarkable how much you could learn about one person just from reading their writing, all of it, from poems to journal entries. The final project came out in a small press edition, and was technically the first thing I did as a book.

You learn tons from editing—it helps you be generous yet selective, including the best of everything you see but also making tough choices. Those are the kinds of things that come in handy when revising your own work. And editing also puts you in touch with writers, makes you find folks you wouldn't otherwise know, or find out corners and pockets that you might otherwise miss. I think all poets should edit at least one thing; it's harder, and more rewarding, than you might think.

Bold Type: If your readers were interested in beginning to learn more about the blues, how would you suggest they begin?

Kevin Young: Grab a great book like Blues People by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) or Blues Legacies, Black Feminism by Angela Davis or Stomping the Blues by Albert Murray, all of which give a nice account of the blues as social force and history. If you want to know more about the musicians themselves, there are a number of good guides, though some bad ones—I'd look around in the section of the bookstore and get a good sense. But it's most important I'd say to listen to the music: find a musician you like (Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, and Son House are among my favorites), look around in the store or online to find what's a reputable music series with good liner notes (very key), and enjoy the music.

Bold Type: Can you talk about what you're working on at the moment?

Kevin Young: I'm finishing another book of poems, this one based on film. In fact, I've lately been thinking of it as the last in a trilogy that started with my second book, To Repel Ghosts, which is about the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and has a kind of jazz structure; it's public and historical where Jelly Roll, part two if you will, is more private. Jazz, the blues, film: these three seem a nice trio of American inventions and sounds that with my next book, I'll be done exploring. Then I can go back to sleep.

Bold Type: Thank you for taking some time for this interview. I wish you the best of luck with Jelly Roll, which I enjoyed immensely, and luck also in all your other projects.

Kevin Young: Thank you! I enjoyed it.

— Interview by Ernest Hilbert

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